On a chilly day in late 2020 the Hammond-Harwood House Museum staff took a field trip to the historic Benson-Hammond House (fig. 1) in Linthicum, Maryland, headquarters of the Anne Arundel County Historical Society. Jan Baker, a volunteer and board member of the Historical Society, gave us a tour. We had come with a specific purpose—to find out more about the connection between the Hammonds who lived in this home and the builder of the Hammond-Harwood House, Matthias Hammond.
To first put the visit in context let’s explore the connection. Matthias Hammond (1748-1786), a wealthy landowner with several tobacco plantations, had the elegant townhouse now known as the Hammond-Harwood House Museum constructed in 1774. He commissioned architect William Buckland to design it. The resulting five-part building has classical elements inspired by ancient Greek and Roman designs. In 1774 Hammond had been elected to the Maryland legislature and likely had great hope for his political future in Annapolis, but by the time the house was finished, he had decided to quit public life and live on his family’s plantation, called Howard’s Adventure, in modern-day Gambrills, Maryland. You can read more about that in this blog. Hammond never married and thus had no heirs, although some of his siblings did and thus the Hammond line continued in Maryland.
The Benson-Hammond House in Linthicum, near BWI airport, was originally built between 1820 and 1830 for Thomas Benson. Benson, a farmer, had acquired three tracts of land around 1809 and constructed a small cabin before building the Greek revival style brick house we see today. Mid-nineteenth century improvements included the addition of a second story. In 1854 Thomas gave his son Joseph the property, called Cedar Farm. Joseph continued to run the farm until his death in 1882. His heirs sold the property to brothers John T. and Rezin H. Hammond (fig. 2), the three-time great nephews of Matthias Hammond, original owner of the Hammond-Harwood House. Rezin lived in the house with his wife and eight children. The farm grew produce to sell in Baltimore. He employed many Polish immigrant workers, who were paid using “picker’s checks” (fig. 3) or tokens. Each individual farm had its own initial token that denoted how much produce a worker had picked. These picker’s checks could then be redeemed for cash or currency in local stores.
The house remained in the family until it was acquired by Friendship Airport, now BWI. The area, known as Friendship, had once been a thriving agricultural center comprising more than a dozen farms (fig. 4). Sadly, with the introduction of the airport, Friendship’s character changed and many old farm houses were lost. Luckily, the airport and the Historical Society agreed in 1975 that the Society would take over the care of the house, and in return they would pay $1 a year in rent. The Society painstakingly restored the house as a museum (fig. 5) dating it to the 1880’s and opened it to the public in 1982.
On our visit we heard the history of the property and toured the house. The two first floors are dedicated to the history of the Benson and Hammond families connected with the property (fig. 6). We found it so intriguing to see original objects from the Hammond family and see how they lived there in the 1880’s (fig.7). We got a real feel for how a farmer’s family in the late 19th century lived—in this rare survivor of Anne Arundel County’s past (fig.8).
Upstairs on the third floor the Society has mounted an exhibition that covers the entire history of the county. One display features the county beaches and another the picker’s checks and the families that used them (fig. 9). A temporary space showed strawberry picking baskets, harkening back to one of the county’s biggest produce money makers in the early 20th century. We found an interesting photograph of an African American strawberry vendor selling his produce on Maryland Avenue in 1893 (fig. 10), just a few doors down from the Hammond-Harwood House, when the Harwood family was living on the property.
After touring the main part of the museum and patronizing the Society’s beguiling gift shop (fig. 11), we visited the outbuildings, including a summer kitchen (fig 12), meat house, and privy. Many of the outbuildings were moved to the property to be saved from demolition. It was then time to depart but not before taking a group photo of the museum staff. Seen here left to right are Eleni Bozori, Office & Events Manager, William Ridgely Sr., Maintenance and Facilities Coordinator, and Rachel Lovett, Curator & Assistant Director (fig. 13). As things improve in 2021 we hope to go back to our usual program of field trips, which includes our larger group of more than 30 docents.
By Rachel Lovett, Hammond-Harwood House Curator